Tag Archives: Boris Johnson

Labour: too many messages, too much haste, too little frequency

It’s undeniable that the media had succeeded in demonising Jeremy Corbyn in the minds of many voters, over a prolonged period, well before votes were counted in last week’s General Election. But in my view Labour created its own technical problems in the way it presented itself.

The party allowed the media to interpret its plans for the economy and society as an overnight revolution, rather than framing its aspirations within a timeframe which would be seen as more realistic. The reality of what Labour would actually have done – and when – is irrelevant: once in power, they could have turned on the after-burners or worked to a safer pace as necessary. But, persuaded by combined media forces, voters feared that the economy was about to be handed over to a Mad Max-type figure.

For instance, judging by some TV vox pops, many people accepted from the MSM that a Corbyn government would bring in a very damaging 4-day week in short order. That’s not what was said. It was a much longer-term aspiration, for working people across the whole economy. But that wasn’t made sufficiently clear, sufficiently often. The media grabbed the commitment and shook the life out of it, turning it into a pledge to force workers to spend their afternoons watching daytime TV, while the NHS collapsed. The rationale wasn’t explained anywhere near often enough by the likes of John McDonnell. Just saying it once or twice was never going to do the job. If insufficient time was available to make it clear to the audience, it shouldn’t have been mentioned.

How do I know this? I worked for over forty years in planning the media side of (often major) advertising campaigns. Sophisticated advertisers know only too well the primacy of the three most critical components of a media campaign strategy: Impact, Coverage and Frequency. The impact a campaign message delivers depends on how it is conveyed in terms of noticeability – whether it’s attention-grabbing, memorable, etc.; the coverage achieved relates to how well-targeted the specific message is, to maximise exposure to as high a proportion of the target audience as possible; and the frequency of the campaign is a measure of the opportunities-to-see (OTS or OTH for opportunities-to-hear) the message.

In the case of an election campaign, impact isn’t a problem if the policies are clearly enunciated and presented with passion; high coverage is often a given, with media eager to gobble up and regurgitate every little tidbit; but effective frequency is much harder to achieve – and usually more important than the other two components.

That’s why Boris Johnson stuck to his monotonous “Get Brexit Done” line. His victory was a triumph of frequency over coverage. In my estimation, the parties were roughly even-Steven on achieving impact and coverage via broadcast and social media. Maybe Labour put a little too much faith in social media as a way of targeting their core audiences. Where possible, Johnson shunned really in-depth interviews which might divert attention away from or dilute his single-minded message. Right from the start of the “Leave” campaign with its infamous “£350m a week” message, Tory blatant untruths and weaknesses in police re-recruitment, replacement of nurses, broken promises on housing, etc. were batted away or avoided like the plague.

The opposite was the case with Labour. Their pot-shots at Tory failings often hit home; they were good on impact, with so many passionate speeches; but, beside the multi-choice Brexit stance, the sheer fragmentation and complexity of their alternative policy messaging was such that the target audience were given too much work to do. People didn’t have the time or inclination to decipher what exactly Labour was on about. Sometimes it’s best just to keep quiet. “For The Many, Not The Few” made a good start but quite soon became subsumed to daily unexplainable promised goodies. Waving the grey costings booklet about only complicated matters still further: the man on the Clapham (or Bassetlaw) omnibus was not going to write off for a copy.

The other day, Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, writing in Huff Post, talked about ” … the incontinent rush of policies which appeared to offer everything to everyone immediately, and thereby strained voter credulity as well as obscuring the party’s sense of priorities”.

Much more focus: that’s what would have won the day on the policy front. Taking the four day week as an example again, there simply wasn’t enough airspace to clarify it often enough as a longer-term aspiration. It was manna from heaven for the deliberate misinterpreters of Fleet Street. These add-ons were policies to be whispered in muted tones at Fabian Society meetings or in Facebook closed user groups. First, get into power – the great lesson taught by one Tony Blair.

A gradualist strategy wouldn’t exclude the possibility of bringing in the whole Corbyn shopping list, ultimately. But promising too much, too soon, is just a recipe for disaster. The ad. business is full of acronyms, one of its most memorable being K.I.S.S. – “Keep It Simple, Stupid”.

In the sense of keeping it simple, Labour Isn’t Working. Now where have I heard that before?


Image credit: TontBlairBasra – Patstuart – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Patstuart


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Brexit is a moment, but also an ancient tide

“Leaving would cause at least some business uncertainty, while embroiling the Government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country – low skills, low social mobility, low investment, etc. – that have nothing to do with Europe”, Boris Johnson, February 2016.

But very soon after he said those words, opportunist Johnson saw that, by coming down in favour of Brexit, he could swim with that ancient British tide of xenophobia and maybe, in the process, further his ambition to be Prime Minister (something I have written about previously). This was at a time when his credibility and charisma still gleamed brightly and he was able to influence a significant slice of public opinion. He chose his moment carefully and, propelled by a following wind from the Tory press, he was appointed captain of the Good Ship Brexit. From his personal point-of-view, it was a masterful piece of politicking, one that Shakespeare‘s Brutus would have admired:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures”.

Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3, lines 218–224.

And yes, sure enough, just as Boris’s star moved into the ascendant, so the tide began to turn in favour of an exit from the EU. The arguments that Remainers listed, floated, ran up the flag pole and dredged up from highly-authoritative sources, failed to change the country’s inevitable course towards self-ejection from the organisation. It was as though Britain had put its collective fingers in its ears.

And maybe it had … maybe xenophobia is a fundamental character trait of the British. Winston Churchill, surely Boris’s greatest hero, once wrote: “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea” (though he changed his mind and ultimately became very pro-European).

And we can find much older literary references that illustrate this point. In particular, Oliver Goldsmith (right), in an essay “On National Prejudices“, first published in the British Magazine in August 1760, described his surprise at the anti-European sentiment that he found when entering into discussion with a group of “half a dozen gentlemen” that he met in a tavern, where

” … one of the gentlemen, cocking his hat, and assuming such an air of importance as if he had possessed all the merit of the English nation in his own person, declared that the Dutch were a parcel of avaricious wretches; the French a set of flattering sycophants; that the Germans were drunken sots, and beastly gluttons; and the Spaniards proud, haughty, and surly tyrants; but that in bravery, generosity, clemency, and in every other virtue, the English excelled all the world”.

Goldsmith turns away but the man is determined to get his opinion on the matter. The writer, who holds it for a maxim to “speak … [his] … own sentiments”, begs to differ:

“I therefore told him that, for my own part, I should not have ventured to talk in such a peremptory strain, unless I had made the tour of Europe, and examined the manners of these several nations with great care and accuracy: that, perhaps, a more impartial judge would not scruple to affirm that the Dutch were more frugal and industrious, the French more temperate and polite, the Germans more hardy and patient of labour and fatigue, and the Spaniards more staid and sedate, than the English; who, though undoubtedly brave and generous, were at the same time rash, headstrong, and impetuous; too apt to be elated with prosperity, and to despond in adversity”.

In this sceptred isle, failing to go with the flow is often seen as a cardinal sin in certain circles and Goldsmith’s riposte met with “a contemptuous sneer”, as

” … the patriotic gentleman observed […] that he was greatly surprised how some people could have the conscience to live in a country which they did not love, and to enjoy the protection of a government, to which in their hearts they were inveterate enemies”.

Exasperated, Goldsmith threw down his payment and retired to his lodgings, “reflecting on the absurd and ridiculous nature of national prejudice and prepossession”.

Gaffe-strewn though his recent careering may have been, Johnson knows a thing or two about certain currents that flow deep in the British psyche, and he may yet bubble up to the very crest of a Tory wave in times to come. He knows how to chart prejudice and turn it to his own advantage.

So amidst all the warnings that the country will either end up on the rocks or sail off into a glorious sunset, that deeply-held (by some) British distrust of Johnny Foreigner is a factor that shouldn’t be overlooked.



Source: The Independent, 21st February, 2016.

Image credit: Brutus – by Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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